New order? Russian President Vladimir Putin
New order? Russian President Vladimir PutinReuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin made a surprising call for restraint in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday, asking armed pro-Russian gunmen to postpone a planned referendum to secede from Ukraine.

"We call on the representatives of southeastern Ukraine, the supporters of the federalization of the country, to postpone the referendum planned for May 11," Putin said, calling for renewed dialogue between Ukrainian authorities and separatists. 

Putin also said that he had withdrawn the 35,000-40,000 troops rumored to be standing on the Russian-Ukrainian border. 

"We're always being told that our forces on the Ukrainian border are a concern," he noted. "We have withdrawn them. Today they are not on the Ukrainian border, they are in places where they conduct their regular tasks on training grounds." 

NATO officials told Reuters Wednesday that no change had been indicated, however. "We have no indication of a change in the position of military forces along the Ukraine border," he said. 

Pro-Russian protestors responded to the move Wednesday, saying that they will take the request into consideration. 

"We have the utmost respect for President Putin. If he considers that necessary, we will of course discuss it," Denis Pushilin told Reuters representatives in Donetsk, where rebels have declared a self-stated "People's Republic." 

Laymen in the pro-Russia movement expressed shock and doubt, however, as the comments surface in the wake of a dramatic upsurge in violence between the separatists and Ukrainian officials. 

landmark deal reached last month between Russia, the US and the European Union (EU) called for the separatists, who have been seizing government buildings in eastern Ukraine for several days, to disarm and stand down - in exchange for amnesty. 

The pro-Russian protesters have largely ignored the deal, however, claiming that the agreement does not apply to them - making Wednesday's statements of consideration as shocking a turnabout as Russia's announcement. 

Locals in eastern Ukraine say they're living practically under siege in cities taken hostage by pro-Russian gunmen, telling the Guardian that they are unable to leave. 

The gunmen, for their part, have been waging a practical war against the Ukrainian authorities - seizing government buildings and clashing violently with Ukrainian "anti-terrorism" units. Earlier this week, fears of an all-out civil war escalated, as a bomb thrown into a seized building in Odessa killed 42 people.